British lawmakers have called for the creation of a garment industry watchdog to stop labor abuses at suppliers to fashion industry retailers such as Boohoo, saying voluntary codes to tackle exploitation are not working.
Parliament’s cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which has been investigating fashion sustainability for the last two years, wants to see a Garment Trade Adjudicator set up to monitor issues such as low pay and poor working conditions.
Fast fashion brands such as Boohoo were criticised severely last year after reports that factory workers in Leicester, central England, were paid well below the U.K.’s legal minimum wage of £8.72 an hour (€10.15-$12.10).
“It appears that voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives have failed to make any significant improvement to pay and working conditions in certain quarters of the fashion industry,” said committee chairman Philip Dunne in a letter to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
He noted that the consolidation of British fashion brands under a small number of online-only operations “enables the groups to concentrate considerable buying power over garment suppliers, similar to the power of supermarkets.”
“We consider that mandatory regulation and greater enforcement efforts are now necessary,” he added.
The U.K. government has established a multi-agency task force to probe conditions in the sector and Boohoo has promised reforms but textile factories have come under pressure during the coronavirus pandemic with brands delaying or cancelling orders.
“A Garment Trade Adjudicator could help to ensure undue economic pressure is not placed on suppliers to cut corners on pay and conditions,” Dunne said.
The British Retail Consortium has proposed a licensing scheme to stop rogue firms, but the committee felt this would place an unfair financial burden on suppliers while retailers were left unchecked.
Fiona Gooch, senior policy adviser at fair trade charity Traidcraft Exchange, told the committee in a recent hearing that regulation of the pricing decisions and purchasing practices of fashion brands was the most effective option. This view was echoed by Leicester City Council, which said retailers must share responsibility.
“Making retailers accountable for practices/due diligence in their supply chain could also improve compliance. This would need to be something that can be enforced, inspected and scrutinised and, where there is lack of compliance, sanctioned,” the council said in its evidence submission.
The EAC said the adjudicator could follow the example of the grocery industry’s watchdog, which has the power to investigate purchasing practices, “name and shame” offenders and impose fines.
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